The Common Causes of E. Coli Infections

When you hear about E. coli, chances are, you’re happily presuming the bacteria isn’t in your digestive system. After all, an estimated 265,000 E. coli infections occur annually and you don’t want to be part of this statistic. 

However, did you know E. coli is already living and probably thriving in your gut? Don’t panic, this doesn’t mean an automatic trip to a gastrologist or even your primary healthcare provider

Some types of E. coli bacteria are beneficial and aid the digestive process. But, some strains attach to your cells, releasing toxins, and this is when problems with your digestive health can occur. 

So, what are the types of E. coli bacteria you don’t want and what causes the infection? Keep reading on to find out.

Common Types of E. Coli Bacteria

While E. coli strains are categorized by how the bacteria adhere to your cells, they share a common symptom. The bacteria typically results in loose, watery stool, otherwise known as diarrhea. The severity of the infection can also vary depending on the strain, which includes the following:

  • Diffusely adherent E. coli (DAEC)
  • Enteroaggregative E. coli (EAEC)
  • Enteroinvasive E. coli (EIEC)
  • Enteropathogenic E. coli (EPEC
  • Enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC)
  • Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC)

Some E/ coli strains like uropathogenic E. coli (UPEC) rarely cause a diarrheagenic infection. Instead, urinary tract infections (UTIs) are a more likely symptom. If an infant is exposed to E. coli K1, the bacteria can cause a meningitis diagnosis.

If you spend a lot of time traveling, especially to tropical climates, you may be exposed to Enterotoxigenic E. coli (ETEC). More commonly known as traveler’s diarrhea, symptoms can start appearing after only a few hours of being exposed to the bacteria.

When multiple individuals come down with E. coli, chances are that everyone has been exposed to Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC). Commonly caused by eating contaminated food, some symptoms can be severe. 

In fact, an estimated 5% to 10% of individuals diagnosed with STEC develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). The condition can result in kidney damage and blood clots.

What Are The Common Causes of E. Coli Infections

You probably already know that contaminated food is a common cause of E. coli infections. This includes eating unwashed veggies and fruits, along with undercooked meats. The bacteria is often present on fresh produce, often picked up in the fields before or during harvest. Thoroughly rinsing all produce before eating is an easy and effective way to reduce your chances of coming down with an E. coli infection.

Bacteria is always present in uncooked meats. No, this doesn’t mean you need to bake your sliced luncheon meat before making a sandwich. Your sandwich meat is already cooked. As long as you store it properly, your sliced deli meat shouldn’t increase your chances of developing an E. coli infection. 

With raw meat, the bacteria is still present which means you want to cook it thoroughly. If you’re not sure if meats like chicken, beef, and pork are ready to come out of the oven or off the grill, an internal meat thermometer will let you know. Just poke the thermometer into the meats, if it registers the correct temperature, it’s safe to eat.

You also want to stay away from unpasteurized beverages like juices, ciders, and milk. This also includes any foods made from unpasteurized liquids like ice cream and cheeses. Since most of these products are pasteurized before hitting store shelves, this is rarely a problem. However, be careful if you’re buying these items straight from the source like a dairy farm. Your farm-fresh milk may not be pasteurized and this means E. coli bacteria is probably present.

While we’re discussing unpasteurized beverages, it’s also a good time to mention water. When outdoor temperatures climb, it’s tempting to take a drink from a stream, lake, or even a swimming pool. While the liquid is refreshing and can help prevent dehydration, you’re also increasing your risks of being exposed to a strain of E. coli bacteria. 

Don’t forget that animals and some people may use a lake, stream, or even a swimming pool as a place to discreetly relieve themselves. Coming into contact with human and/or animal waste is a common cause of a diarrheagenic infection.

Staying Healthy and Limiting Your Exposure Risk

Even though it can seem like you’re constantly being exposed to one E. coli strain or another, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to come down with an infection. Always wash your hands after leaving the restroom, cook all meats thoroughly, rinse your produce, and stay away from unpasteurized beverages. 

Simply taking a few precautions can help you stay healthy and significantly reduce your risk of infection.To safeguard yourself and your loved ones from potential health risks, it’s important to remain vigilant and consistent in practicing simple and effective habits.